Harvard flap prompts query: How free is campus speech?
BOSTON AND CHICAGO
In the two weeks since Harvard University president Lawrence Summers suggested that innate differences between the sexes may partly account for male dominance in science and math, the ensuing frenzy of discussion has become a kind of national Rorschach test.Skip to next paragraph
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Editorialists excoriate his sexism or applaud his candor. The National Organization for Women has called for his resignation. Academics are poring over studies that deal with nature, nurture, and gender differences.
Dr. Summers's comments - which he said were intended to provoke discussion about why women were underrepresented in top science posts - have ended up raising an even larger question: Have universities become so steeped in sensitivities that certain topics can't be openly discussed?
Historically, ivory towers have been society's bulwarks of free intellectual exploration. But critics say that role is jeopardized on issues ranging from gender and race to religion and the politics of the Middle East.
"I could give example after example where speech that is considered offensive by any particular group that has a disproportionate amount of power on the campus is subject to censorship and repression," says David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a civil liberties organization that works on college campuses. "It gives the most sensitive person the veto power on debate and discussion."
Many disagree with that assessment. But the Summers flap has revived a longstanding debate on the subject - often waged along ideological lines over whether campuses are hostile to those with conservative ideas.
At Columbia University, for example, a different sort of controversy has been brewing about what can and can't be said. In this case, it's not an authority figure who's ruffled feathers, but students. The tensions came to a head this fall when a documentary, "Columbia Unbecoming," filmed Jewish students alleging that pro-Palestinian professors, particularly from the school's department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC), were intimidating them.
In the film, one student who had served in the Israeli Army says a professor asked him how many Palestinians he had killed when he stood up to ask a question.
The charges have angered both students and professors, with both sides waving the banner of academic freedom. Columbia President Lee Bollinger has formed an ad hoc faculty committee to investigate the student complaints, while one professor in MEALAC has likened the situation to a "witch hunt."
While teachers say they feel threatened (one has canceled his most controversial course), the students say theirs is the speech that's being suppressed - and that the pro-Palestinian professors have crossed a line into unacceptable territory. "I don't think I can go before class and say something blatantly racist," says Ariel Beery, a Columbia senior who appears in the documentary. "Creating a collegial environment in order to work together is what a university is about."
Others have more sympathy for the professors. The controversy "raises concerns that political disagreement is being conflated with intimidation and harassment," says Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who calls the student attacks a throwback to the McCarthy era. The fact that the students have so publicly denounced the professors and administration, she says, shows that students are "quite empowered" to express opinions.
The controversies at Harvard and Columbia are, of course, quite different in terms of both the complaints and who's making them. But both touch on the question of whether academia is increasingly unfriendly to vigorous debate.